Oon & Bazul's Partner Keith Han, Associate Angela Phoon and Trainee Kiran G. share information on Singapore's new Protection from Harassment Court (PHC).

Singapore's Ministry of Law and the State Courts recently announced that a new Protection from Harassment Court (PHC) will hear all criminal and civil harassment claims starting 1 June 2021. The new court is dedicated to hear cases relating to online falsehoods, harassment cases such as doxxing (the publishing of an individual’s private personal information online) and threatening behaviour.

Oon & Bazul recently acted for a client in making an application for a disabling order under the new false statement order regime of the Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A) (POHA). The application was dealt with swiftly and effectively under the new regime. Our client, a business owner, faced a scandalising online review alleging inappropriate conduct of one of its employees. Our client was concerned that if left unchecked, the review would have a devastating impact on his business. In fact, reposts of the review had begun surfacing on other websites, further warranting the need for swift and decisive action.

As the author of the review was using a fictitious online profile, it was difficult for us to pursue the traditional legal remedies of defamation and/or malicious falsehood against the author. Instead, we commenced an application for a disabling order and an interim disabling order against the internet intermediary responsible for providing access to the review, seeking orders for access to the review to be disabled, at first temporarily on an urgent interim basis, and then eventually permanently. The disabling order would compel the internet intermediary to disable end-user access to the review, thus limiting the spread of the malicious statement.

Under the new false statement order regime, a party may apply for and obtain an interim false statement order within 48 to 72 hours of the application.

The expedited procedure is intended by Parliament to deal with the speed at which online falsehoods could spread. We obtained an interim disabling order two days after the application was made, and the final disabling order a month later. The relevant internet intermediary took down the offending statement very shortly after being served with the interim disabling order.

The fact that the internet intermediary is based overseas (in this case in the USA), is no bar to the Court granting relief under the POHA. The Court also allowed service to be effected via substituted service on the internet intermediary’s legal support email dedicated to dealing with such matters. Although in some cases, an internet intermediary may be willing to take down a post/review at a victim’s request on the basis that it is false, in other cases (such as the present), the internet intermediary may require a formal court order before deciding to take action.

It is not surprising that these internet intermediaries have adopted this stance towards take-down requests.

Not only may courts be better poised to deal with such issues, which inherently involve balancing an individual’s right to free speech and another individual’s right to protection of his reputation, internet intermediaries may also not want to bear the costs of having to adjudicate on such requests.

Our recent experience shows that the PHC is well-poised to handle such applications. It also provides a simplified track where applicants can file their claims online with the help of template forms, and for hearings to be conducted on an expedited basis. All in all, the PHC is a welcome development to Singapore’s legal landscape, and is well-suited to dealing with the unique legal challenges posed by the internet age.

Photo  / 123RF

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